Maybe this has happened to you: You walk into a conference room fully confident that you’ve prepared well and put together a crisp, persuasive presentation that will instantly wow your audience. The proposal you’ve developed is clearly the right choice, and you know the numbers that support your case inside and out.
But halfway through you realize, as the decision maker in the room asks you skeptical question after skeptical question with their arms crossed, that you aren’t winning over the room. If you step back and dissect what happened later, you might realize that what seemed like a no-brainer obviously posed some critical challenges for your audience — ones that you didn’t anticipate.
This is a common problem for presenters, but it’s not an insurmountable one. Whenever you head into a conference room, there will be variables that affect the outcome — some you can control and some you can’t. But two variables will often be present, and they can be assessed and preempted with a little time and thought. These variables are:
• The level of change you’re asking from your audience
• The level of involvement or investment they may need to put in
In purposeful communication, the first step is to understand whether the opportunity in front of you will be an easy one (little involvement required from your audience and little or no change) or a difficult one (a large budget request or significant involvement and major change required). Understanding where your goal lands in this metric can determine how you may want to approach your topic.
Most important, remember to approach this from the audience’s perspective. What tangible thing are you asking them to provide (whether time, money or employees)? What is the level of change you’re asking of them? What may seem like an insignificant or easy request to you may be, at that time and in their circumstances, a much more challenging request. Try to adopt your audience’s perspective and arm yourself with some basic knowledge of the context in which they’re operating.
Level Of Change
It’s human nature to resist change. How often have you heard that? On some level, the prevalence of this sentiment can be attributed to its truth. You may see it in your own behavior: Do you choose the same cereal for breakfast? Do you have a routine stop for coffee on your way to work? Do you go on vacation to the same resort every year? Familiarity often breeds comfort, while change can feel threatening.
But the truthfulness of the sentiment also depends a great deal on context. Think about technology, for instance. Let’s say that Sam has an iPhone and has upgraded from model to model a few times over the past few years. If he’s offered the latest model, he’s happy to take it — even if it means having to update all of his apps, learn a new version of an operating system and get used to changes in hardware. Even with that degree of change, it’s a process Sam is comfortable with. But Sam’s dad has always used a flip phone. If someone asks him to move to the latest iPhone, making that change will likely be much harder. He’ll have to learn to use an entirely new interface and adapt to new ways of using the phone.
Some people crave change, and others are wary of the risks. The same change might require a greater leap for one person than another. With this in mind, the first variable to assess as you begin to plan your communication is the level of change your proposal may require — not only in general but also for your specific audience.
The more change you’re recommending (change of plan, direction, strategy, brand, etc.), the more difficult the challenge may be. By correctly assessing the level of change necessary, you can be prepared with a persuasive message that comprehends and addresses the significance of the change — and anticipates skeptical and even aggressive interrogation. Practicing responses to the most likely questions can defuse some of this tension. Be prepared to respond sympathetically, respectfully and thoroughly to objections.
Level Of Involvement
Have you ever been interrupted during a presentation by the question, “OK, but what do you need from me?” If so, it’s not surprising — the level of involvement is often the most pressing concern on an audience’s mind. Consider the difference between asking someone for approval to accelerate the timeline for a new initiative and asking someone for approval, an expanded budget and two new employees to accelerate the timeline. The level of involvement can impact how your audience views any change, big or small.
Will the idea simply require audience approval — a low level of involvement — or will the audience need to take some risks and commit resources? Think about what you’re asking your audience to do and whether they’ll be assuming extra risk, whether they’ll need to add to their budget or whether they may have to devote their time or their employees’ to make changes happen. Expect more skepticism and more pushback as you increase the level of involvement. If you need investment of any kind from your audience, make sure your message convinces them it’s worth it.
Understanding the context that gives you a sense both of what you’re asking of your audience and how they might respond to it doesn’t mean you need to do a background check or a deep dive into the business practices of your audience. A quick web search, looking at the company’s stock price over the past six months, asking a few questions of colleagues or reading reports can give you a quick idea of what’s at stake. Spending even 15 minutes putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and understanding their situation can make a vast difference in how they receive your message.
Dean Brenner is a recognized expert in persuasive communication and is President and Founder of The Latimer Group.